- Acts 17:22-31 & Psalm 66:8-20
- 1 Peter 3:13-22
- John 14:15-21
First Reading: Paul proclaims the resurrection to the Athenians
The speech attributed to Paul in Acts 17 tells us more about the theology of Luke than the rhetoric of Paul. In keeping with the historiographical principles of the time, Luke composes the kind of speech his hero (Paul) would have delivered had he enjoyed the opportunity of giving an address to the leading scholars of Athens. It is a classic scene, and the speech is certainly fitting for the narrative purpose although—like most of Luke’s compositions (eg. the Nazareth sermon in Luke 4)—rather thin on content when we examine it closely.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:22–31 NRSV)
In just a few words, Luke gives us the impression of Paul presenting a cogent apologia for the new faith at the very centre of the intellectual world of his time. This fits with his desire to present Christianity as a respectable option for his readers, and it is paired at various points in his narrative with depictions of both the Jewish and pagan opponents of Christianity as undisciplined rabble.
Within the logic of the lectionary, this passage is the most universalistic of the proclamations of the resurrection message. Between last week and this week, we have travelled from Jerusalem to Athens; from Stephen’s dying vision of the risen and exalted Son of Man, to Paul’s invocation of the Greek sages in support of the Christian gospel. Where the Jerusalem authorities turn into a murderous mob (with even Saul/Paul acting as an accessory), here the sophisticated sages of Athens express a willingness to hear more—though some (most?) remained unconvinced:
When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this. At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. (Acts 17:32–34 NRSV)
Second Reading: Christ preaches to the spirits in prison
If the representation of Paul preaching to the Athenian sages—and basing his address on pagan poets—can be understood as an appeal to universal spiritual wisdom, then this week’s excerpt from 1 Peter goes one step further by presenting Jesus as proclaiming salvation to the lost souls in Hades during the time between Good Friday and Easter morning:
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. (1Peter 3:13–22 NRSV)
The idea of Jesus’ Descent into Hell—also known as the Harrowing of Hell—is an interesting twist to the resurrection traditions. For a brief discussion of this traditional motif, which survives in the statement “he descended to the dead” in the Apostles’ Creed but flourishes in Orthodox iconography, see the Holy Saturday page. This ancient tradition survives as a marginal motif in Western Christianity, but surely implies there are no limits to the reach of the Good News since Christ himself has proclaimed the victory of the Cross to all the souls lost in Hades. Paul preaches resurrection to the Greeks, but Jesus preaches liberation to “the spirits in prison.” Can we imagine anyone not embracing such an opportunity for release? What limits dare we place on God’s generosity when the ancient traditions imagine not even death itself as a barrier to conversion?
Gospel: The promise of the Spirit
As we get towards the end of the Easter season the lectionary texts shift focus from the resurrection of Jesus to the presence of the Spirit as the mode of the risen One’s continuing engagement with the community that bears his name. This week we have the promise of an Advocate (the Spirit of Truth) to be a continuous presence with the community and/or the individual disciple. Next week the focus will be on the ascended Lord: the one whose departure/elevation is a prior condition for the Spirit’s outpouring. The following week is the feast of Pentecost when the focus falls directly on the presence of the Spirit of God/Jesus.
There is some confusion within the NT gospels concerning precisely when the Spirit was gifted to the community:
- MARK barely mentions the theme, but we cannot be sure just how the original version of the Gospel according to Mark ended. We know from chapter 13 that Mark is aware of the early Christian belief that they were blessed with an inner presence of God’s own Spirit:
As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. [Mark 13:9-13]
- MATTHEW promises the presence of Christ himself, rather than the Spirit:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:16-20]
- JOHN explores the theme of the promised Spirit through the extended monologue of the Supper Discourse and then has Jesus bestow the Holy Spirit on the disciples gathered in the locked room on Easter night:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” [John 20:19-23]
- LUKE-ACTS develops the theme of the promised Spirit so that the coming of the Spirit is delayed until the Jewish festival of Pentecost, some 7 weeks after Easter. In the meantime the Spirit is promised and the disciples are told to wait in Jerusalem for the blessing which God would send them:
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. [Acts 1:4-9]
In these texts we can see the truth of a particular religious experience being expressed and interpreted with a mixture of history and metaphor. All these early Christian communities understood themselves to be the recipients of the Spirit’s presence. However, in creating stories to explain the origins of this experience and to guide their contemporary practice, they employed various combinations of metaphor and history. Neither the history nor the metaphor is consistent across the various canonical texts.
- 029 Descent into Hell: (1a) Gos. Pet. 10:41-42; (1b) Matt 27:52-53; (2) Herm. Sim. 9.16:5; (3) Ign. Mag. 9:2; (4a?) 1 Pet 3:19-20; (4b?) 1 Pet 4:6.
- 363 Jesus Supper Discourse: (1) John 13:31-17:26.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre: